PRESIDENT’S ADDRESS as delivered to members of the Bestor Society on August 6, 2017
Following a selection of Mendelssohn performed by a Student Octet of the Music School Festival Orchestra, Timothy Muffit, Music Director
The invitation for today’s event asked you to join me for my first President’s Address to the Bestor Society. This has been a season of firsts for me as the 18th President of Chautauqua, and truth be told, as I progress with you through our 144th Assembly, I feel both a briskness in the pace of this season and, at moments, as if time has simply stopped, asking us to pause and to drink in all the blessings this sacred place provides.
Many of you have commented about seeing me whizzing by on the golf cart that the staff has humorously and literally inscribed with the moniker “Office 1,” and I confess that there have been days that I feel that this mode of transport is metaphorically causing me to rush through these precious nine weeks and, at other times, being limited to the required 12 miles an hour or less imposed on all such vehicles, can symbolically feel like slugging through quick sand. Our time together is both flying by and reminding us to slow down.
The ebb and flow of this Chautauqua season is, like most things here, completely new to me, and yet I’m honored to be among you as human reminders that what we do here is anything but new; that there is a permanence befitting these 143 years. And I cannot help but look around this tent overlooking the place I now call home and find myself filled with gratitude for all of you … and all who came before you … that make this special place possible.
It has been an interesting season for our staff here at Chautauqua, a team filled with many veterans, who have had to navigate a few new folks, including a President who is learning the rhythm of our rituals and the meaning behind our stories. Like most events, I find myself turning to Geof Follansbee and asking, “So what is it you want me to do again?”
His instructions today were straight forward: “Tell them what you believe. Tell them how these weeks of your first season have changed you and your thinking. Tell them where you think we’re heading.”
And for those present for my opening Three Taps, I promise to do that in less than 45 minutes this time.
Some of you have heard the rumor that I came here with a “10-year plan for Chautauqua,” a blueprint on how we were going to preserve all the good things about our life and fix those that are less than desirable. While I certainly wish that there was a ready-made document with all the answers, I did come to Chautauqua with what I’m calling a “vision thesis,” a broad outline of what I believe Chautauqua can and should be for the world. A presentation some of you have seen titled “Proclaim and Reclaim” has been a rallying cry for me and my team these past seven months.
Gandhi once noted that “all the religions of the world, while they may differ in other respects, unitedly proclaim that nothing lives in this world but Truth.” And Matisyahu, a Jewish American reggae vocalist, beatboxer and alternative rock musician, proudly said, “I am reclaiming myself. Trusting my goodness and my divine mission.”
This pursuit of the truth – despite its difficulty to discern and grasp in today’s age – is what Chautauqua has been about since its founding in 1874. All who have come to these shores have sought the greater truths of how the best in human values might play out in our communities, in our nation and in our world. What Vincent and Miller dreamed of for Chautauqua then is still its pursuit today, and perhaps is needed now more than at any point in our history.
But I also came here because I believe that it is time for Chautauqua to reclaim its leadership in the world, its prophetic role in helping to show society a way forward, in mirroring and modeling the best of human values — not for the pursuit alone but with the unrelenting goal of shaping a better tomorrow.
I have been both surprised and thrilled that our charge that we pursue a “muscular civil dialogue” has taken hold. I know that not everyone loves the wording – it wouldn’t be Chautauqua if you did. I expect that there are others who have wrestled with the meaning of this charge. In asking people to be civil, is this a veiled way of suppressing free speech? Are we attempting to force people into a false sense of “niceness” that precludes a real conversation? So much of society today is operating from the instructions “to rise up, to resist” to “reclaim” in a more militant sense our individual view of the world in hopes that the rancor might die down through the sheer force of one side winning and one side losing.
Certainly, that may be the state of affairs outside these gates, but I believe that Chautauqua, as it has always done, is asking us to do something greater, to ascend to our best selves, not to take the easy way forward but one that has a higher purpose if we succeed. Calling for a civil dialogue is not to put away or suppress our opinions but rather to speak up after listening. To seek first to understand rather than to be understood.
Civility is not a codeword to lay down one’s beliefs but rather is an even stronger tool to help us discover that the answers the world needs may just lie in the exploration of “the other,”; in acknowledging that no viewpoint or person holds all the truth.
Phillip Kenicott of The Washington Post reflected at the height of the last Presidential election, long before we even knew who would be the next President, that history can be our guide. He wrote, “The world has been falling apart for a long time now. So how do we put it back together? The answers are the same as they ever were: We improve ourselves through learning, self-criticism, conversation and art.”
Samantha Power, the immediate past U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, was asked for the answer to a world that seemed more fractured than ever. What could we possibly do as citizens, she was challenged? Her response: “We can’t pull back from the world. It’s a question of how to be in the world. … If we want to see the change, we have to be the change.”
And while journalists and diplomats can uplift, cajole and inspire, I prefer to look to local heroes for the answers. I live in a house that was first built for Dan Bratton, Chautauqua’s 15th President, and there is not a day that I walk out the front door that I don’t think of Dr. Bratton. In his final Three Taps of the Gavel, less than a year before cancer would take him from us, he gave us a charge: “Wherever that mission goes, Chautauqua can never be timid in its worry. This institution … has made a difference, can make a difference and will make a difference.”
So, my responses to Geoff Follansbee’s instructions for today are simple ones:
- 1) Tell them what you believe. I believe that it is again time for Chautauqua to reclaim its role as a shining example for the nation of how communities can and must come together in dialogue and community to stop the screaming from the echo chambers of left and right, to learn how to live together in a way that allows us to tackle this generation’s great issues.
- 2) Tell them how these weeks of your first season have changed you and your thinking. Having been invited so graciously into this community, I have watched you wrestle with what it means to lean into difference and to genuinely want to learn how to engage a neighbor who thinks differently; or a family member who is struggling to listen first and speak second. With your example as evidence of this community’s potential, I am even more optimistic about our ability to succeed.
- 3) And, finally, Geof advised me to tell them where I think we’re heading. I believe with all my heart that we are heading into an era of reclaiming Chautauqua’s founding promise of living and exploring the best in human values but adding to it nothing short of an unrelenting goal of changing the world for the better. Simply being enlightened during this time is no longer enough. We must take it forward to a world that needs Chautauquans to show the way. Our efforts in interfaith engagement, our pursuit of year-round programming, our response to questions of diversity, our desire to be a national thought leader are all in service to that greater goal.
So, the question becomes: Can we really do it?
Bill Bates stopped me just yesterday in front of the post office to share a David Brooks column form the New York Times titled “Can People Change After Middle Age?”. In it, Brooks argues that true social change can only come after personal transformation.
Brooks argues that people who have transformed themselves to make society better have learned to “speak in the middle voice.” He goes on to say, “Sometimes we speak in the passive voice, when things are happening to us. Sometimes we speak in the active voice, when we’re lecturing and taking charge. But mature activists speak in the middle voice, which is receiving and volleying, listening and responding, the voice of equal and intimate relationship.”
I’d like to believe that David Brooks, who has graced our community more than once, may have had Chautauqua in mind when he wrote those words.
So, allow me to bring my first President’s Address to a close by adding one more item to Geof’s earlier instructions of what today should be about: “Tell them why you need them.”
This grand experiment called Chautauqua has never and will never work without you; without your generosity, without your commitment, without your pursuit of the truth. Chautauqua’s strength and greatest differentiator has always been that we pursue our work in community. We even have a name for it: We’re Chautauquans. That designation means something powerful.
But Chautauqua’s higher calling for today is not simply coming together to be enlightened by the truth. Our charge is to take that truth back to our communities to heal a fractured and broken world. We are called to nurture and care for our beloved Chautauqua to ensure that its pursuit of the best in human values and its promise to do something greater with that pursuit is sustained for another 143 years.
I came to these hallowed grounds, this sacred grove, just as the Promise Campaign was ending. A remarkable quest that sought $98 million and delivered $103-plus million, including a new Amphitheater. So many of you made that campaign successful, but I think its title is what you really accomplished.
You made a promise that the vision of Vincent and Miller, that the hard work of those that came before you would live on for future generations. It’s why I’m committed to always describing myself as the 18th President of Chautauqua, because I never want to forget that 17 others came before me and worried, and celebrated and committed their lives to be your partner in ensuring that our Chautauqua will be around for years to come.
I close my President’s Address with profound gratitude for each of you and by personally pledging to do all I can to ensure that Chautauqua’s best days are yet to come. Thank you for the tremendous care you’ve shown me this first season; thank you for agreeing to partner with me for the days ahead.
May God, called by many names through many traditions, bless you all.
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